THOUGHTS ON THE SECULAR UNIVERSITY—PT. I

I responded over the weekend to a recent opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education ridiculing the idea that any religious college could truly qualify as a legitimate institution of higher learning. (See “The Great Accreditation Farce,” by Peter Conn.) Offering a series of pronouncements rather than a chain of reasoning, the author, a professor of English and Education at the University of Pennsylvania, insists that to grant accreditation to schools like Wheaton College makes a mockery of the academic ideal of “unfettered inquiry.” Wheaton’s provost, Dr. Stan Jones, responded with a thoughtful essay that contests Conn’s twin assumptions, each equally naïve: the first, that scholars with religious convictions necessarily embrace irrationality and abandon reason; the second, that the secular university is devoid of dogma of its own. In my response I chose to offer a personal testimony of sorts, comparing my experiences on the faculty of the University of Washington, where I taught for over two decades, and at Wheaton College, where I have served since 2010. Although the UW has many strengths and numerous committed faculty, I have nevertheless felt much greater academic freedom since coming to Wheaton.

This was all that I originally intended to share, but a question from a reader has changed my mind. In a thoughtful comment to my original post, Daniel Davis asks whether, in my opinion, secular professors like Conn are aware of the holes or contradictions of their own worldviews. After some hesitation, I decided to offer a ridiculously broad reply to Davis’s focused question. In this post and the next one, I’d like to share my sense of the world view of today’s secular university. You should file this under the category of my thinking out loud with you about a question that’s way beyond my pay grade. I’d love to hear your perspectives, which may well differ from mine. As G. K. Chesterton warned, “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot.”

But first, two caveats:

To start with, I need to stress that I’m not an expert on the philosophy of higher education. I can only offer my individual perspective as someone who taught at a fairly typical research university for twenty-two years. This does not make me an authority on the subject (although it does give me twenty-two years’ more experience at a secular institution than Peter Conn has at any of the Christian institutions he sweepingly condemns).

Beyond that, it is imperative that I reiterate my appreciation for the many positive aspects of the secular institution where I taught, i.e., the University of Washington. Although much of what follows will be critical, I do not mean to single out the UW as having more problems than most universities. Nor do I mean to cast aspersions on the faculty there. Although I differed dramatically in worldview with almost all of my colleagues, I was nonetheless surrounded by men and women who pursued their vocations—as they understood them—with dedication and integrity.

So what kind of worldviews did I encounter there? The answer is, “It depends.” It’s important to address the question at two levels. Institutions take on lives of their own, and the philosophies that guide overall decision making don’t always bear much resemblance to the personal values motivating the individuals involved in them. Most of my colleagues at UW were at least relatively idealistic. They loved their subjects. They were passionate about teaching, or research, or both. They genuinely wanted to make the world a better place. And they were willing to make personal sacrifices to be a part of such a work. Generalizing broadly, almost everyone I met at UW could have pulled down a much higher salary by opting for a career outside the academy. As a rule, they had compiled impeccable undergraduate records, thrived in top-notch graduate programs at elite universities, and earned their jobs at UW by beating out hundreds of other applicants. In sum, they had the intellectual tools to earn handsome livings, but they freely chose the much more modest compensation that the academy typically offers.

It’s crucial to stress this because, when it comes to the institutional philosophy that guides UW and schools like it, much of this idealism vanishes. At the institutional level, these schools aren’t driven by an irreligious or specifically anti-Christian ideology, as conservative Christians often claim. Indeed, they’re not very ideological at all. They’re pragmatic. At the institutional level, the values of the university are pretty much the values of the marketplace. Universities are enormous economic concerns (the UW is the third largest employer in the state of Washington), and they are shaped first and foremost by economic forces. This may be the most important thing to know about higher education over the past half century.

As Mark Edmondson explains in his wonderful book Why Teach?, colleges and universities expanded dramatically during the fat years of the GI-Bill and the baby boom. The baby boom had ended by the mid-1960s, however, and the rate of growth of the potential college population was slowing dramatically by the mid-to-late 1980s. Compounding this demographic problem was a political one. Just as demand/supply forces began to turn against higher-ed, state legislatures began to respond to straitened economic circumstances by slashing their appropriations to state universities. In 1975, state and local government appropriations accounted for 60% of total expenditures on higher education. By 2010 that proportion had fallen to 34%.

If anything, the trend has been more dismal at UW. When I joined the faculty in the late 1980s, state appropriations accounted for about 80% of the instructional budget, with tuition payments making up the balance. In the coming academic year those proportions will be almost exactly reversed. To call schools like the University of Washington or the University of Michigan or the University of Arizona “public” schools is more than a bit misleading. They are now, for all practical purposes, private institutions.

This demographic and political one-two punch has forced public colleges and universities to respond to market forces more than ever before. Many observers will think this is a good thing, and it’s possible that it has been—in some respects. Perhaps there is greater “efficiency”; maybe there is less fat in the budget than before (although trimming the fat typically involves cutting faculty rather than administrators).

But colleges and universities cannot stay afloat solely by cutting costs. To survive, they must do two other things: they have to be more competitive in attracting students, and they have to be more successful in attracting other sources of revenue beyond tuition payments and state allocations. The latter means courting wealthy donors and eliciting grants from the federal government and from large corporations. Both trends contribute to a growing “customer-is always-right” mentality. I suspect that this has a lot to do with the grade inflation that is rampant in higher education, the widespread acceptance of A.P. courses for college credit (despite dubious evidence that they are comparable to college courses), as well as the reduction in required courses that allow eighteen-year-olds more and more to define their own programs of study.

When it comes to research, universities are more and more dependent on outside grants. This is much less the case in the humanities, where the cost of research is typically minimal, but it is the norm in the hard sciences, where the costs of equipping a laboratory can be enormous. In 2009, grants from federal agencies (most notably the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Agriculture; NASA, the National Institute of Health, and the National Science Foundation) provided 59 cents of every dollar spent on university research in the fields of science and engineering. The total amount was just under $33 billion. (The University of Washington regularly leads all public universities in federal research dollars; in 2012, UW faculty received over 5,000 grants totaling nearly $1.5 billion.) Grants from private corporations are much smaller but growing. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2012 private corporations invested more than $3 billion in academic research.

None of this means that the objectivity of the research itself is compromised, although many have made that charge. What is undeniable is that the lion’s share of the research conducted at public universities is research that outside sources with deep pockets are willing to pay for. Outside funding may not determine the answers researchers arrive at, but it surely helps to determine the questions that get asked. You would never know that from Peter Conn’s characterization of the secular Academy, however. In the secular university of Conn’s imagination, “unfettered inquiry is the hallmark” of research. In contrast to religious institutions, where blind submission to dogma is the order of the day, in the secular university scholars are committed only to the courageous pursuit of truth without respect to other considerations of any kind.

Call me skeptical.

Next time we’ll shift our focus from the institutional philosophy of the research university to the individual philosophies of its faculty. Thanks for reading.

6 responses to “THOUGHTS ON THE SECULAR UNIVERSITY—PT. I

  1. Pingback: ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN A CHRISTIAN CONTEXT | Faith and History

  2. Pingback: THOUGHTS ON THE SECULAR UNIVERSITY—Pt. II | Faith and History

  3. Pingback: Accreditation to the Rescue (for real?) - Front Porch Republic

  4. Jack Be Nimble

    I agree that there is always a culture present in an educational institution. My experience is at the public high school level although I am a graduate of Wheaton College and earned a masters degree at NIU (4 years at a Christian college vs. 45 years in the public schools as student and teacher). The culture I observed had much more to do with how student centered the school and its employees were than any secular or religious ideology. There teaching staff presented a wide variety of world views and a significant minority were committed Christians. The major change that I observed as a teacher was the increasingly kind and supportive atmosphere that seemed to result from the promotion of a Christian man as principal. There was no less academic freedom and considerably more care taken in making judgments about students and their issues. Granted, this was some years ago and things may have changed.

    The practical and mundane side of things may distract us from the really important task of educating (meeting the needs of) our students. I am convinced that a teacher with a faith commitment will be willing to go the extra mile to complete that task. This is not to say that a teacher with a secular commitment would necessarily do any less but to impugn the Christian teacher on the assumption that his/her faith has caused an abandonment of reason is simply not warranted.

  5. You have been quite charitable in your assessment of the changes at public universities. Ideology need not be conscious or explicit, and (in mild disagreement with you and the previous commenter) I believe your relative discomfort at the UW is indicative of the presence of an institutional ideology – maybe better referred to as a culture – and a concentration of similar personal ideologies. In the 7 years I spent as a student at the UW, I experienced that institutional culture. At the time, it felt normal enough to me that I likely would have argued against its existence. Today, with the evolution in my worldview, I see it more clearly as “different” than my current outlook.

    Attending the school as a student even today, the culture would have little impact on my ability to learn. However, as an employee, it would be more challenging. During the recession, I worked for an organization (and leadership) that was a poor fit for me. I learned much during that period, including about my own biases and preconceptions. But the primary learning experience was that there is always a culture present that attracts or repels. We’re simply happier when we find the one for us.

  6. Having gone to the University of Washington this is what I know – their is no one overarching philosophy of their faculty. Each teacher I had there had a different philosophy. They came from different backgrounds, sometimes different countries. If you think you can pit secular “worldview” against a religious “worldview” I think that is a mistake. Education is not some ideological struggle – you make teachers angels and demons and you leave students not learning anything except how to yell the loudest. I went to a Baptist college, I went to the University of Washington and I learned at both. I had wonderful teachers at both. If you feel more free teaching at a religious institution – then teach at a religious institution. You know there are others who would not feel free at all in a religious institution – especially given Wheaton’s recent legal case involving women’s healthcare.

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